Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism
by James Stevens Curl
Oxford University Press, 2018, 592 pages, £45
There is a curious phenomenon in Western intellectual life, namely that of being right at the wrong time. To be right at the wrong time is far, far worse than having been wrong for decades on end. In the estimation of many intellectuals, to be right at the wrong time is the worst possible social faux pas; like telling an off-colour joke at the throning of a bishop. In short, it is in unforgivable bad taste.
There was never a good time, for example, to be anti-communist. Those who early warned of the dangers of bolshevism were regarded as lacking in compassion for the suffering of the masses under tsarism, as well as lacking the necessary imagination to “build” a better world. Then came the phase of denial of the crimes of communism, when to base one’s anti-communism on such phenomena as organised famine and the murder of millions was regarded as the malicious acceptance of ideologically-inspired lies and calumnies. When finally the catastrophic failure of communism could no longer be disguised, and all the supposed lies were acknowledged to have been true, to be anti-communist became tasteless in a different way: it was harping on pointlessly about what everyone had always known to be the case. The only good anti-communist was a mute anti-communist.
Anthony Daniels’ column appears in every Quadrant.
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Something similar is true of opposition to modernist architecture: there has never been a good time to oppose it. This is illustrated by some of the critical response to Professor James Stevens Curl’s magnum opus just published, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism. This book is a polemical, but deeply scholarly, history of architectural modernism, its antecedents and its results, practically all of which have been baleful, especially in Britain. Dr Johnson wrote in his epitaph for Oliver Goldsmith that he “left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn”. Of modernist architecture in Britain, it might be said that it has left scarcely any town untouched, and touched none that it did not ruin.
This is so obvious to me that I find it difficult to imagine how anyone could fail to see it. To argue with someone who does not see it is like trying to persuade someone who believes toad-in-the-hole to be the highest possible culinary achievement that he is mistaken. One hardly knows where to begin. I am reminded of what Karl Kraus wrote about Hitler: “When it comes to Hitler, I can’t think of anything to say.”
Professor Curl is a very distinguished historian of architecture, and his book is the summation of a lifetime’s study. Though polemical, it is far from a rush of blood to the head. He has examined the intellectual foundations of, and supposed justifications for, modernism very closely, above the call of duty, for it cannot have been very pleasant work. The word intellectual, by the way, does not imply high intellect, which the holy trinity of modernism, Gropius, Mies and Corbusier, certainly did not possess. What they possessed instead were psychopathic ambition, ruthlessness and a talent for self-promotion.
“Why now?” asked two reviewers of Curl’s book. The review in the Times, by Richard Morrison, ended: “[The book] left me slightly bemused. I wonder why this combative octogenarian didn’t write this book fifty years ago, when the battle was still raging, and your city’s skyline was still worth fighting for.” The review in Country Life, by Clive Aslet, said something similar.
This is very curious. First, it implies that, had it been written and published fifty years ago, it might have made a difference, when it is precisely one of the burdens of the book that in the post-war period the modernists had gained such a hegemony in architecture that architectural education amounted almost to a micro-totalitarian system of indoctrination that brooked no opposition and exerted a virtual stranglehold on all new building. Curl does not claim to be the first to criticise modernism, but his book is the most complete account both of its roots and of it fruits so far written. Moreover, it is not true, as Morrison implies, that he has recently turned against modernism: he protested against the modernist desecration of Oxford almost fifty years ago in a series of articles in the Oxford Mail, later published (in 1977) as The Erosion of Oxford.
Second, it is an admission that Curl is essentially right: architectural modernism has ruined our towns and cities. It is just that it is the wrong time to be right (although, in fact, he has been right all along). But even if Curl had not uttered a peep on this subject before, though in fact he had, many times, as the bibliography makes clear, it would surely be a matter of legitimate inquiry as to how and why the disaster occurred. It might offer the hope of learning from experience. We do not say of the Holocaust (or any other such disaster) that its victims are all dead anyway, so it’s not worth the effort to study its history.
Even worse was a review in the Spectator by Stephen Bayley. He criticised the book because it has a bibliography of forty-two pages, without allowing for the possibility that this might be a mark of erudition and wide reading (every item cited is relevant to the theme of the book). He says:
Yes, modernist principles, misunderstood by unimaginative planners, often led to atrocious results. Le Corbusier’s “vertical garden cities” became vertical slums. And there is only a sliver of difference between Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus ideals and a crap council estate.
Even overlooking the vulgarity of expression that seems now to be almost de rigueur in British journalism, this is a very curious passage, for again in essence it admits that Curl is right, although the author does not appear to realise it. Atrocious results, vertical slums, crap council estates: that is the legacy of Le Corbusier and Gropius on a huge scale.
However, Mr Bayley also appears to think that if only Le Corbusier had had his way and destroyed half of Paris to make way on a much larger scale for the kind of loathsome disfiguring concrete towers that are two a penny in every British city, everything would have been all right. Intellectual, moral and aesthetic blindness can go no further.
The ideals of the modernists? Totalitarianism and the view of Man as a termite or even bacterium was implicit in everything that they said and everything that they did: and again, I do not see how anybody could fail to see a totalitarian sensibility in their architecture. Le Corbusier detested the street because it escaped the supposedly “rational” control of the bureaucratic planner. The very year after four million people had fled the advancing Nazis, he saw fit in a little book to advocate the expulsion of millions of people from Paris because he, the great architect, saw no reason why they should be there. He wanted to park them instead in the countryside so that they could hew wood and draw water, as was (in his elevated opinion) their proper destiny. If this is idealism, I’ll have none of it.
“Architecture evolves,” writes Mr Bayley. “Primitive hut to Greek temple; from Teutonic forest groves to Gothic cathedral; Renaissance, revivalism, and then the purification of modernism.” But purification from what, exactly? There was plenty of excellent and humane architecture in Edwardian times. The charge against modernism is not that it represented a change—Curl is specifically an admirer of all the great and varied architectural achievements of the past, not only European, and has published widely on them—but that it represented a revolutionary change for the worse, a destructive force such that a single one of its productions could (and often did) ruin a townscape built up over centuries. It was this egotistical indifference to what already existed, as well as utter lack of humanity, that was so aesthetically, and one might add psychologically, devastating in England and elsewhere.
Mr Bayley’s review ends, “At least the modernists … believed in life, in optimism, in making new.” That is the kind of thing that apologists for bolshevism and Nazism said. But one has only to compare intramuros with extramuros Paris, the former with its multisecular glories and the latter with its Gropian, Miesian and Corbusian horrors, to grasp the scale of the modernist disaster.
As George Orwell intimated, there has been so much deliberate intellectual obfuscation in the recent past that seamlessly unites the vicious with the absurd that it is the obvious that it now takes real intellect (and courage, alas) for an intellectual to see and enunciate. Professor Curl has done for architectural criticism what the late Simon Leys did for Sinology.